Every picture tells a story

Art 2 - James Hall wades through a door-stopping study of Victorian painting

Lionel Lambourne's Victorian Painting boasts 512 pages and 626 colour illustrations, and it weighs in at a whopping 3.402 kilogrammes. George Melly's delicious quip about the deluxe art deco Hoover factory on the Great West Road spontaneously popped out of my subconscious: "All that for sucking up shit!"

The preface is not promising. Lambourne - who is a CBE, and well past pensionable age - rolls out a very lame football metaphor. The pre-Raphaelites are, apparently, in the "Premier division", playing an "artistic football match" against the French impressionists. Later on we learn that the career of a successful Victorian artist is akin to "the progress of a club upwards through the tables of the Football League", and three painters with Italian surnames (Bruneri, Landini, Rizzoni) are said, mysteriously, to "sound for all the world like key members of an Italy football squad". Remarks such as these might even get you sacked from breakfast TV.

Lambourne is in fact a serious scholar who knows his subject inside out, and such blokeish lapses are few and far between. For the most part, he offers a reliable canter through the highways and byways of the Victorian art world. There is a perpetual undertone of forced, camp jollity, but that is forgivable. For how else, when studying such stuff, can you keep your sanity?

Victorian Painting is billed as a revisionist work. The story of British art has traditionally been seen in terms of a golden age extending from Hogarth to Turner. That is certainly how it is played out on the walls of the National Gallery. Although several works by continental European equivalents of the pre-Raphaelites are displayed in Trafalgar Square, no work by Rossetti, Millais or Hunt has ever been admitted. The policy is especially perverse as Charles Eastlake, the gallery's first and greatest director, was a cod pre-Raphaelite painter, and this orientation led him to build up the gallery's astonishing collection of early Italian art, which is unrivalled outside Italy.

After Turner, British art is generally assumed to have become boorishly and sanctimoniously anecdotal (Landseer, Hunt, Frith, Fildes) and - the other side of the same coin - vacuously and emasculatedly soporific (Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Leighton, even Whistler). Victorian paintings always seem to say either too much or too little. Lambourne's approach actually makes it all seem more anecdotal than ever. He's very good at the social history of art but doesn't try too hard to convince us that Victorian painting is much more than reportage. Andrew Lloyd-Webber, a major collector of Victorian art, may well find the inspiration for a few songs here.

Indeed Lambourne often goes too far in the search for uplifting "Home News" stories. Of Charles West Cope's The Young Mother (1845), which shows a well-heeled young woman breast-feeding her baby on a chaise longue, Lambourne observes: "Although today viewed as over- sentimental, Cope's painting . . . emerges as far more than a conventional essay on the theme of maternity when viewed against the mid-19th-century background of the alarming incidence of death in childbirth through the ravages of puerperal fever." The only fevers attaching to this mindlessly blissful picture are those brought on by living in the lap of luxury.

Lambourne's sociological approach would have been better served if the book had not been confined to Victorian painting. He often refers to photography and even more often writes about pictures as though they were photographs, but only one photograph (a portrait of Tennyson by Julia Margaret Cameron) is reproduced. He also provides fascinating bits of information about the crossover of art into advertising. "Chocolate-box" art starts in this period, and so do the first Christmas cards and pictorial posters, while painters frequently made most of their money by having engravings made of their work or by doing illustrations for novels. Yet none of these "low" forms of art is adequately discussed or reproduced. This apartheid regarding media gets ridiculous when the only Aubrey Beardsley to be reproduced is a mediocre painting and the only John Tenniel (the illustrator of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass) is a winsome fresco.

Can anything much be salvaged from the sewage of Victorian painting? Yes, oh yes - a few pre-Raphaelite paintings have a choked intensity that is perhaps matched in European art only by Caravaggio. The psychotic Roman painter imprisoned sickly androgynes inside airless interiors and illuminated them with pitiless searchlights of hallucinatory intensity. Frequently Caravaggio used his lovers and friends as models and on several occasions he gave severed heads his own features. The pre-Raphaelites were no less drawn to self-mythologising scenes of pervy violence, both psychological and physical (Millais's Ophelia, Hunt's The Awakening Conscience), which featured their own androgynous lovers and friends. But both Caravaggio and the pre-Raphaelites are magnificent cul-de-sacs in the history of European art. Their art is sick and solipsistic at heart. I think I now understand why Lambourne uses those dreadful football metaphors. After all this unoxygenated art, it is perhaps a plea for action, energy, sweat, noise - in other words, for a world in which lungs pump vast quantities of fresh air.

Lionel Lambourne's "Victorian Painting" is published by Phaidon at £39.95; James Hall's "The World as Sculpture: the changing status of sculpture from the renaissance to the present day" is published by Chatto & Windus at £25

This article first appeared in the 06 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Whatever happened to liberty?